Rock of Ages

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Some old Scottish jurisprude (and I’ve forgotten which) said, “We do not break the law. We break ourselves upon the law.”

He was perhaps echoing Our Lord, as recorded in Saint Matthew (21:44): “And whosoever shall fall on this stone, shall be broken.”

The verses surrounding this are of considerable current interest, too, but to save space I will assume that gentle reader owns a Bible.

We are working today, improbable as this may sound, on the notion that law is merely something legislated. This is the only sort of law that can be considered secure  and then only temporarily – under what a certain pope emeritus called the Dictatorship of Relativism: “The dictatorship of relativism is confronting the world. It does not recognize anything as absolute, and leaves as the ultimate measure only the measure of each one and his desires.”

Our current pope, incidentally, was not slow to repeat this observation, after he was elevated to the Throne of Peter, only last year.

Our venerable Church does not recognize this Dictatorship. She never has, and so long as she is herself, she never will. What was true yesterday remains true today; what is true today will remain true tomorrow.

Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, before the conclave that elected him pope:

How many doctrinal winds we have known in these last decades, how many ideological currents, how many styles of thought. . . .The thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves, tossed from one end to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism.
For many years before, though not yet a Roman Catholic myself, I was under the impression from reading him that this Ratzinger was the finest living Christian mind. Later, I realized that the qualifier was unnecessary. (Even as an Anglican, I subscribed to Communio.)

“Today,” said the man about to be elected Pope Benedict XVI, “having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism.”

It is a label that could be applied to every one of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as it often is today to everything else that came “before Vatican II.” As worthier pundits have observed, Jesus Christ is also among the things that came before Vatican II.

What has come since is still under discussion. Paul VI famously observed smoke creeping within the Church herself. Whatever its source – and as faithful Catholics, we will correctly infer its provenance – demands that the Church “catch up with the times” have spread from special pleading to background prattle.

       Cardinal Newman: in a winter cope; in the winter of life

Though expressed in new phrases, resistance to the Zeitgeist – to “the spirit of the age” – is nothing new. Blessed John Henry Newman, for instance, set himself squarely against “liberalism in religion,” which he defined as, “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.”

(There was a moment last week when, reading an interview in an Argentine newspaper, in which learned cardinals who uphold Church teaching were described as “conservatives” to be debated with, I turned back to Newman with great urgency.)

Newman was unambiguous about this. All his life, as he said before the end, he had fought liberalism in religion. One is outraged, today, to hear unmistakably liberal proposals fathered on him, and his views on the development of Church doctrine misrepresented by men who (if I may be so charitable) cannot have read him.

But of course, even today, novelties and innovations cannot be presented within the Church as novelties or innovations. Sophistry is required, to couch them as valid extensions of the received doctrine. Examples must be supplied, of hard cases – of just the kind the Scribes and Pharisees used in their efforts to trip up Our Lord.

For this, too, is nothing new in the history of our Church. The Devil would not be doing his job without making his arguments sound plausible; without distracting his audience in the manner of a professional magician from what he is doing, with theatrical asides.

That hard cases make bad law has been known to intelligent lawyers from time out of mind. One does not even need religion for that, but only some instinctive appreciation for what we call the “natural law,” founded on what always happens.

Exemptions that are universally granted for hard cases will – not occasionally, but invariably – undermine the whole edifice of civil or canon law. It is not that they CAN be used. Rather, they WILL be used in all the other cases. One does not compromise by allowing just one substantial crack in the dam.

The perfect example in our time was allowing abortion in very hard cases. The “mercy” shown to a few distraught mothers became death to countless millions of the unborn.

It was once understood, not only in Rome, that human law rests in the natural law, which rests ultimately in divine law – known to us by Revelation. That, regardless who is voting, the fundamental principles are unalterable. The law is not written, but “discovered.”

This was the understanding of the anonymous Scottish jurisprude, with which I began. (Almost certainly a Presbyterian.) The law is the law is the Law, and while in some superficial or merely plausible sense it is possible to “break” it, the reality is the exact opposite. It can no more be broken than the law of gravity.

However we try to conceal it from ourselves, the rock of the law remains; and whether as individuals or as a whole society, we will, as they used to say in Scotland, “find out what the law says.” And that, from the moment we try to deny it.

Call them “conservatives” or “fundamentalists,” as you please. It is not the rock learned churchmen are defending. They are defending us – all liberals included – against being broken upon that rock.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
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David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: